December 30, 2012 at 18:00 PM EST
The Games Industry Is Driven By Marketing Stories
Discoverability, collapsing social game models, failing gamification and weak levels of excitement for new gaming platforms have all conspired to make 2012 a complicated year for games. For some this means that the business is all about selling shovels rather than prospecting for gold, but maybe it's more about identifying the causes that players believe in.
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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

There were many significant games-related stories in 2012. On the one hand there were negative tales, from the breakdown of the social game model to the (not entirely surprising) revelation that the bulk of gamification doesn’t really work. These stories were essentially about novelty wearing off, twinned with the growing general awareness of the playing audience of Skinner-box designs that aren’t much fun.

Other negatives included the generally weak anticipation for new consoles and the mass overcrowding of iOS and Android (and no doubt the Windows Store soon enough). Discoverability became the watchword on game makers’ tongues, as many struggled to gain enough momentum to really see any success. For many, the industry felt as though it was going through a crunch, to the point that big publishers like THQ are officially circling the drain.

However in tandem with those problems came the return of tools intended to solve them. In the last few months, companies like Tapjoy have resurfaced with new versions of their old Facebook product, this time for mobile. Cross-promotion is back in style, with many a provider offering the opportunity to lower your customer acquisition cost. So too are monetisation platforms that offer developers the ability to manage their virtual stores dynamically, profile their customers and tailor their offers. Finally there are social tools like Everyplay, which can magically share your gameplay sessions on video sites.

More than a few people have made the analogy that these companies are doing the smart thing, selling shovels to prospectors rather than getting in on the digging themselves. If you were in their shoes, you likely would too.

The odds are increasingly stacked against any developer who’s unable to pull a Peter Molyneux and attract a whole lot of press attention to a zany idea. Their problem is that most often their games look and act very similar to others’ games, have the same look, gameplay and overall dynamic as competitors’ games. That is the kind of market that favours aggregators (like cross-promoters) over creators because in it the creator is just cranking out a commodity.

On the supermarket shelf, commodities are all much the same and the user doesn’t really have to care which choice he makes, so he tends to go with the one he sees first or second. That’s why Apple has all the power on the App Store, why Google is sort-of getting there with the Play store, and why Zynga has all the power within the sub-ecosystem it has developed on Facebook. In commodity markets, visibility is everything.

However at some point aggregation is also not enough. Perhaps for a while there is room to manoeuvre with your quirky take on the standard farming game, or if you’re skilful enough at playing the arbitrage game you’ll get your social casino to rise up the charts. But those ideas are kind of cheap, and you’ll quickly find many competitors doing the same thing. The aggregator tools that you’re using also start to become overly full of competitors who had the same idea as you, and they start to shut down because of a lack of return-on-investment.

This leaves only a very few in the market competing over hundreds of millions of players with hundreds of thousands of games, which is basically just another version of the low-rent gaming portal business of 2000-2005. For the individual developer the game then has to become about either impressing platform holders and users, or doing something else.

Most choose to try to be impressive. This year the tablet space in particular has had a marked increase of graphical polish, and that trend shows every sign of continuing. In some respects it’s like watching the console and PC games industry play its story out all over again, but with good reason: Graphics, in particular a stylish look, can really push a game forward into the market in ways that innovation rarely does.

However this does not give much solace for the developer who cannot afford to spend a fortune. He finds himself needing an edge, and that edge is the marketing story.

Amid all the gloom, the most interesting story of the year was crowdfunding. At first it seemed like a small thing, such as in 2011 when Six to Start raised $72,627. However a gear shifted in early 2012 when Double Fine got in on it, raising millions. At first dismissed as a blip, or a one-time event, crowdfunding then proved to have legs, funding dozens of projects from games to add-ons, and one whole brand-new console. And it continues to do so.

Its secret is deceptively simple: The projects that represent causes in which the market already believes get funded. These cause-projects are commonly tied to a particular game maker, such as Chris Roberts or David Braben, but often not. Nobody ever heard of Palmer Luckey before he raised $2.4m for the Oculus Rift, nor Adam Poots who’s very close to raising a million dollars for a co-operative board game named Kingdom Death. They are all examples of marketing-story driven success.

A marketing story is a cause that a market believes itself to be a part of, and which goes out of its way to try and recruit more members into the market. It’s often fuelled by a sense of injustice at some past misdeed, or some anticipated future, and through purchasing players feel that they are participating in telling that story. That whole Apple fandom thing is an example of a marketing story operating at full steam, as is the (slightly more dented) Nintendo fandom.

Marketing stories are everywhere in games, from the iOS game 10000000 to Minecraft. Some of them are small in scope, reflecting a passionate niche (like my recent report on eRepublik whales). Others are huge, like the legions who queue at midnight to get World of Warcraft releases.

Some marketing stories also extend beyond the boundaries of games. A recent example is the belief that games are dangerous or induce violence (here, the market is political rather than monetary). Another is (approaching defunct) San Francisco Revolution view that meaning, behaviours, community and education can all be melded into noble businesses through gaming. This story is what gave virtual worlds and alternate reality games their impetus five years ago, which is currently driving gamification and – when gamification finally falls away, as is inevitable – will likely propel augmented reality.

The important word here is belief. Marketing stories are not rational analyses based on studying metrics or performance; they are derived largely from a narrativised understanding of games and what they mean. They often have historical roots, an idealised origin story, and leader figures who propel them. This is why many Kickstarter-funded games tended to gather around game designers of yesteryear, but equally the story can be more consensual (such as for the Ouya).

All the most infectious marketing stories tend to be future-forward in their thinking. Cynics may roll their eyes, but phrases like “We need 21 billion hours of gaming to save the world” (a Jane McGonigalism) inspire imagination. One marketing story forming around a future-forward idea is that of 3D printing. For legions of war game fans, the idea that we will be able to download and print miniature armies in the future is positively erotic.

For games, these passions have always existed. However Kickstarter (and to a lesser extent other services like Indiegogo and Steam Greenlight) have made them more directly expressible, and this is a capacity to which neither aggregators nor power plays generally have access. It’s somewhat pat to say, but the way that the network connects is fuelling both a fragmentation of the existing industry and a new generation of heroes. But it’s also creating a strong sense of disruption.

This newfound tribal funding and evangelism model has appeared at a time when the official industry finds itself in a deeply troubled state. Nobody’s really sure whether they even want a new console anymore, or a gaming PC, or whatever. Developers have no idea which market will be the hot ticket, or which might at least allow them to survive. The metrics simply do not track fast enough for anyone to have a firm grasp on what the hell is going on anymore.

To some, there is an element of the transitional yips about 2012. Fine, they might say. It’s all well and good for the moment for Kickstarter to be doing its thing, but just wait until there’s a crash, a scam or something else to take the shine off. Just wait until old-school game designers like Peter Molyneux come in and wreck it. Just wait until E3, when Xbox3 and PS4 roll in and the industry gets back to “normal” once again.

Personally I think the crowdfunding story has struck hard and deep because it’s as significant a shift as going from physical to digital shopping. As we know from reading all about long tails and the like, the digital landscape allows users to connect to the interests they care about rather than just the ones they are served, and this tends to cause all sorts of unexpected effects. The market becomes much more chaotic, more thousand-niche-like, and the paths to success all look like long-odd bets. In such situations, only a marketing story tends to survive.

Marketing stories don’t tend to fizzle out that quickly, even if the leader of the story makes missteps. The crowd proves willing to forgive as long as it feels kept in the loop. It wants to see the future that the story promises. They believe what they believe, no matter what. That fountain is always regenerating, always has new heroes to step in and push the story forward, and new enemies to fight.

And now that the true believers can participate directly, that is what they are going to continue to do.


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